Gamergate, the freewheeling catastrophe/social movement/misdirected lynchmob that has, since August, trapped wide swaths of the Internet in its clutches, has still — inexplicably! — not burned itself out.
Late last week, when many of us thought we’d seen its end, the mob drove yet another woman from her home: This one, Brianna Wu, because she dared to tweet some jokes about the ongoing drama.
Here at the Intersect, we have ignored Gamergate for as long as humanly possible — in large part because it’s been covered in enormous, impressive depth elsewhere, and in smaller part because we’re exhausted by the senseless, never-ending onslaught of Internet misogyny, which really can’t be explained in a blog post — or, frankly, anywhere else.
But that said, the disturbing, violent threats sent to Wu, the co-founder of an indie game studio, makes it all too clear that Gamergate is less a one-off scandal (as the obnoxious -gate suffix would imply), and more a long-term, slow-burning campaign. In other words, Gamergate is not going away.
So even if so much of this bizarre Internet conflict remains inexplicable, it’s important to try to understand what all is going on here — not just for gamers, but for ordinary Internet-users, too.
Whatever Gamergate may have started as, it is now an Internet culture war. On one side are independent game-makers and critics, many of them women, who advocate for greater inclusion in gaming. On the other side of the equation are a motley alliance of vitriolic naysayers: misogynists, anti-feminists, trolls, people convinced they’re being manipulated by a left-leaning and/or corrupt press, and traditionalists who just don’t want their games to change.
The divide is, in part, demographic: It’s the difference between the historical, stereotypical gamer — young, nerdy white guy who likes guns and boobs — and the much broader, more diverse range of people who play now.
There are, unsurprisingly, some socio-political overtones, as well: The hashtag only took off once it was tweeted by the conservative actor Adam Baldwin and blurbed on Breitbart. (Truly odd, fascinating headline there: “Feminist bullies tearing the video game industry apart.”) Since then, Gamergate-supporters on 4chan and Twitter have been quick to sling around the acronym “SJW,” for social justice warrior — a kind of shorthand insult for liberals and progressives. It’s not a “an apolitical consumer movement,” Jon Stone argued in The Guardian Monday; it’s “a swelling of vicious right-wing sentiment.”
If you’re not personally a gamer, it can be tempting to dismiss it all as subcultural drama. But as the preceding paragraphs would suggest, that couldn’t be further from the truth: The issues that Gamergate struggles over are also issues of great conflict, and importance, to American culture as a whole. In fact, in many respects, Gamergate is just a proxy war for a greater cultural battle over space and visibility and inclusion, a battle over who belongs to the mainstream — and as such, it’s a battle for our cultural soul. Just writ really small.
Then, of course, there’s the sheer violence of the whole thing. We bust out the term “culture war” to describe any sustained conflict between groups with opposing philosophies and ideals. But when it comes to Gamergate, there’s also an aspect of literal war, as well: Threats have become so violent that the FBI is investigating.
This all kicked off on a very specific, if no less troubling, issue. In 2013, an independent game designer named Zoe Quinn released a free game called Depression Quest. Depression Quest isn’t a “game,” in the way we traditionally conceive of it: It’s more a story or a piece of interactive art, which as it unfolds, tells the story of a young adult’s depression.
Some people were really into Depression Quest, including several video game critics. Other players took issue with what they considered the artsiness, the non-game-iness of the game. (Remember, this whole debate essentially boils down to identity: what counts as gaming and what doesn’t.)
In either case, the stage was already set for some kind of major meltdown when, in mid-August, one of Quinn’s ex-boyfriends claimed, in a series of disturbingly intimate and VERY long blog posts, that she had cheated on him with several men in the gaming industry — ostensibly to get ahead in her career.
One of those men was a writer for the prominent gaming site Kotaku, a Gawker property. While both he and Quinn denied the allegations that she somehow traded sex for coverage, outraged gamers had already taken to Twitter, Reddit and 4chan by the tens of thousands to protest the so-called ethical breaches in gaming journalism. Almost two months later, in fact, many people will still try to tell you that ethics in game journalism are all Gamergate’s really about.
The problem with that argument is that Gamergate’s biggest “protests” don’t appear to have any relation to ethics or journalism — not even a tangential one. Instead, anonymous hackers posted Quinn’s personal information, including her address and nude pictures, shortly after her ex’s blog went up. Conspirators on Twitter purportedly made sock puppet accounts to spread the “scandal,” then bragged about it on 4chan. Some of the people sent Quinn death and rape threats so specific, so actionable, that she fled her house and called the cops.
Meanwhile, the male journalist whose ethics were (purportedly) at the center of the whole kerfuffle is still writing for Kotaku — which, for the record, ruled that neither he nor Quinn did anything wrong.
Initially, the “movement” appeared to be about Quinn — or at least about what she represented to a band of angry, anonymous gamers. But within days, Gamergaters had also attacked Anita Sarkeesian, a feminist writer and media critic, after she posted a new video in her ongoing series about women and gaming. She, like Quinn, was forced to leave her home.
Shortly after that, two other women who wrote about Quinn and Sarkeesian — Jenn Frank, a gaming journalist, and Mattie Brice, a game designer — announced that they would withdraw from the industry over the resulting harassment they received. Frank articulated the real issues at hand in her essay for the Guardian, which would later get her bullied offline: Gamergate, she wrote, is less about ethics, and more about drowning out critics of traditional, patriarchal, dude-dominated gaming culture.
For the record, the “drowning,” in this instance, wasn’t just run-of-the-mill Internet nastiness. In many cases, these women received highly graphic, disturbing threats — the stuff of “SVU” episodes. And in a few cases, anonymous Twitter trolls went so far as to include the woman’s address or an exact time of attack, making the message a “true,” i.e. criminally punishable, threat.
We don’t know, as the most severe offenders are operating anonymously or under pseudonyms. In many cases, they’re organizing on sites like 4chan and 8chan, an anonymous 4chan spinoff that essentially exists just to talk about Gamergate. In fact, thousands of Gamergate supporters on 8chan recently passed around a demographic survey on the gaming industry, put together by the researcher Jennifer Allaway; but alas, most of the responses contained only irrelevant (and telling!) messages, like “kill yourself.” Predictably, the debate has also attracted the usual crowd of men’s rights activists, neo-Nazis and other unsavories.
That isn’t to say that everyone flying the #Gamergate banner is sexist/racist/crazy, and that isn’t to say there aren’t some decent arguments about journalism ethics being made. But whatever voices of reason may have existed, at some point, have been totally subsumed by the mob.
This, at last, is the big, troubling question whenever we talk about harassment and other bad behavior online: How many people actually feel this way? Would they ever say these things in person? Is it possible so many people hate women so much?
Don’t panic: There’s good news here. Both mainstream gaming critics and many Gamergate supporters insist the brutal trolls are just a small, vocal minority. There’s plenty of social science to back that up, too: We know that people are more aggressive, more argumentative and more nasty when they’re permitted to comment on something without using their real name.
That said, discomfort about women’s growing presence in culture and industry remains widespread IRL. According to a 2012 poll by the University of Arkansas, more than a quarter of all white men hold some sexist attitudes. Online, no one needs polls as proof: High-profile stories of gender-based harassment, abuse and bullying accumulate by the day.
But Gamergate, crucially, isn’t just about gender. It’s not, contrary its name, even about video games. At its heart, remember, the so-called “movement” (if an ambiguous hashtag with no leaders and no articulated goals can be called a movement), was always about how we define our shared cultural spaces, how we delineate identity, who is and is not allowed to have a voice in mainstream culture. It’s about that tension between tradition and inclusion — and in that regard, Gamergate may be the perfect representation of our times.
People have proposed lots of great ideas to make gaming more inclusive, from critiquing existing games (a la Sarkeesian) to encouraging more women and minorities to join the industry. But perhaps the simplest and most eloquent proposal came from Andreas Zecher, of the independent studio Spaces of Play, who recently wrote a popular “open letter to the gaming community” — and got thousands of other professionals to sign on. By signing, they promised to stand up for other members of the community if/when they saw them get harassed:
“We believe that everyone, no matter what gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, religion or disability has the right to play games, criticize games and make games without getting harassed or threatened,” he wrote. “It is the diversity of our community that allows games to flourish.
Zecher’s manifesto doesn’t sound like it should be controversial, but it is. We can hope that as more people sign on — and as Gamergate inevitably, eventually putters out — that all changes.